True grit: A look inside True's new fit out

The advertising industry is renowned for its creative offices. And independent agency True’s new space in Auckland doesn’t disappoint.

In an industry where perceptions matter, where ideas are the main currency, where momentum is crucial, and where finding and retaining staff is extremely competitive, there often seems to be a degree of one-upmanship when it comes to the offices of adland. In service of the Great Lord of Creativity, the typically relaxed, generally aesthetically pleasing, often fairly kooky physical spaces are designed to inspire creative brilliance. And that’s what the main brains behind True were aiming for with their impressive new office in Grey Lynn. 

True cut the ribbon on its business around five years ago and since then it has gone on to do some great work for the likes of Air New Zealand, Vodafone and ANZ. It has now expanded to around 40 staff, and it was bursting at the seams of its old office, so it looked for somewhere bigger close-by and found a building that had previously housed the Department of Social Welfare and Literacy Aotearoa (Mike Mizrahi’s Inside Out was also based here). 

“It definitely had that social welfare vibe at the start,” says Bruce Craig, a registered architect, self-proclaimed ‘space man’ and leader of its spatial division, True Space. “It felt like it needed some juju cleansing.” 

The office featured soul-crushing grey partitions, lowered ceilings, fluorescent lights, horrible old carpet and a tearoom. But it has now been transformed into a modern, welcoming, open plan gem. And they did most of it themselves. 

“It’s about walking the talk,” says Craig. “They’re a creative bunch so they wanted and got a lot of input. And we worked together to hold on to that True vibe.” 

And they describe that vibe as “raw—with some polished bits”. 

“A lot of creative and design agencies are quite earnest and overly sophisticated and we didn’t want that,” says co-founder and managing director Matt Dickinson. “We wanted our personalities to shine through.” 

While some claim the open plan office is a boon for collaboration and a facilitator of serendipitous encounters, others believe it’s the height of distraction and, as a recent article in The Economist stated, things have gone too far. As it said: “’Deep work’ is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.” 

But Dickinson says it aims to have the best of both worlds. 

“Because the other building was so small, we didn’t have places away from the desks to chill out and work or escape a playlist. So we created areas like the bar, the library and another area in the creative department where they can do that. We’re already looking at more staff, and as we expand we want to avoid taking those areas away,” he says. 

There’s a perception that the ad industry tries to get as much out of their labour units as possible until they burn out and get replaced. Co-founder and executive creative director Craig Pethybridge admits it can be “a quite high pressure and sometimes high stress environment at times”, and while some seem to enjoy the drama, the late nights, the big pitches and the regular ups and downs, he says it wanted to create the most relaxed working space possible to try and counter that. 

“That’s about the break-out areas as much as it is about the aesthetic … It’s a response to how I would like to be treated. And you attract better people,” says Dickinson. 

And those good people tend to stay. 

“We have probably got one of the lowest, if not the lowest, attrition rate in the industry,” Pethybridge says boldly, potentially tempting fate. “Since we started, we’ve only had about ten or 11 people leave.” 

As there are concrete floors, it put a lot of money into the acoustics to ensure noise didn’t bounce everywhere; there’s plenty of plant life to balance all the technology; art, including a commissioned piece from the now-separated BMD, lines the walls; and Craig and True’s industrial designer Oscar Fernandez also designed a bespoke modular desking system (“it’s a beautiful piece of kit,” says Pethybridge). While they wouldn’t reveal the total budget, like any major renovation, Craig says “you think you’re saving money, but you spend a shitload more than you expect”. 

When it comes to inspiring creative thinking, the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the ball pit. Yes, that’s right, the ball pit, which Pethybridge claims is “maybe the only one in New Zealand”. 

Dickinson says it was definitely a contentious idea, but Pethybridge got his way in the end. 

“I wanted it for the silliness of it. If you wanted to act like a kid, you could. And invariably that’s what happens. For me, it sometimes gets you thinking on a different plane. You can achieve that all kinds of different ways. We just decided to do it with blue balls.” 

Most are familiar with the images of slides, foosball tables or video game rooms in fancy modern offices that seem to scream ‘We’re hip! We’re cool! It’s fun to work here!’ And in many cases, there’s a danger of slipping into cliché. 

“It certainly wouldn’t be our thing to try and keep ahead of the game in that sense,” says Pethybridge. “It was more about just keeping it fresh and interesting and having some fun.” 

They say the ball pit is not deserted and filled with mouse droppings (yet). In fact, it gets a lot of use in the school holidays and “it’s surprising how many clients have jumped in”. 

It’s a leap of faith to invest in a new office, just as it’s a leap of faith for brands to invest in advertising. But, in both cases, the best efforts tend to get results and it’s amazing what a bit of creativity can do for morale. And there’s a fair bit of research showing that simple things like being able to see outside can improve happiness—and, ideally, productivity. 

Dickinson says six months is probably not long enough to gauge the return on investment, but the staff have certainly enjoyed the change of scene. 

“You’d hope that things improve when you go from one place to the next.” 

The new space has also been a positive signal to the market, both in terms of attracting staff and impressing clients. 

“I think people probably take us more seriously because it means we’re growing and have more resources at our fingertips,” says Dickinson. “ … We’re also getting a lot of anecdotal feedback about how it’s a really good place to work here. Even from recruitment agents. You have to be careful they’re not just trying to sell their wares. But I’ve heard it from various people in the industry so if that’s something we’re getting a reputation for then I’d be very proud of that.” 

Because it’s such a standard, non-descript ‘70s building from the outside, Dickinson says there tends to be a moment of surprise when people come up the stairs. 

“The last office was tucked away, but here they say, ‘wow, it’s big’,” he says.  

So far, a couple of clients have held planning days there. And there have also been quite a few kids’ parties. 

“Having kids in here is something we encourage,” says Pethybridge. “And that’s one of the reasons for the ball pit. They absolutely love it. It happens a lot. If a child is sick or it’s the holidays and it’s hard to find childcare, we say ‘bring them in'.” 

They’re also very pet friendly (it’s ‘bring your dog to work’ day every day, they say). And these HR policies are based much more on gut feel than on science. 

“We make up our own rules. But we don’t tend to overthink these things,” says Pethybridge. “We do what feels good.”

As it’s an independent agency, it says it has the freedom to make those kinds of decisions. And Dickinson says it is working on pushing things even further. 

“And not just for the sake of being different, although that’s a good marketable outcome. But treating people in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re coming into the office every day.” 

Craig, who has redone a number of ad agencies in his time and also works on retail fit-outs and product design, says his work is all based around “what is the experience we want to create, what is the outcome we’re looking for?” And he believes more businesses are realising that if you want to reinvent your brand, you need to start from the inside. 

“There have been companies that have done the whole brand story and one of the pieces was to do an office space to reflect what that brand needs and what it looks like in the physical space,” says Craig. “When budget permits, there are more and more companies saying, ‘actually, how we treat our staff and our environment has to reflect the brand as well’. It can’t just all be external. There’s got to be a connection there.” 

Things are moving very quickly in the communications industry, something True is embracing with the addition of a content production division and other specialists. And the office continues to evolve as well: they’re already starting to make a few minor adjustments to their new space in an effort to maintain the freshness. 

“It’s a little bit like getting tattoos,” says Pethybridge. “You just want to keep adding to them to keep life interesting.”